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Amid Ben & Jerry’s uproar, Unilever chief tells Jewish groups firm opposes BDS

Ice cream maker’s parent company seeks to reassure those concerned by its refusal to sell beyond Green Line, but some in US are unimpressed by the gesture

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

In this March 15, 2018, photo, the logo for Unilever appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
In this March 15, 2018, photo, the logo for Unilever appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

The parent company of Ben & Jerry’s voiced its opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel on Tuesday, as the conglomerate sought to assuage American Jewish groups upset about the ice cream giant’s decision to cease sales beyond the Green Line.

In a letter sent to several Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said his global consumer goods giant “rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any forms of discrimination or intolerance. Antisemitism has no place in any society. We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

Jope sought to distance Unilever slightly from Ben & Jerry’s, saying that when it acquired the ice cream supplier in 2000, it agreed to “recognize the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions in accordance with its social mission. On this decision it was no different.”

The Unilever CEO reiterated Ben & Jerry’s intention to continue doing business in Israel proper, even after it withdraws from the West Bank in 2023. He also highlighted that Unilever employs nearly 2,000 people in Israel and has invested $295 million in the Israeli market over the past decade.

“I hope that this letter goes some way to reassuring you that we recognize the concerns you have raised and that Unilever remains fully committed to our colleagues and customers in Israel, and Jewish communities around the world,” Jope added.

While Unilever suggested that a refusal to sell in the West Bank does not amount to alignment with the BDS movement, which calls for a boycott of Israel proper as well, the Israeli government has not made the same distinction.

Screen capture from video of Unilever CEO Alan Jope, December 2020. (YouTube)

In a statement responding to the letter, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he was “heartened” by the “unequivocal stance rejecting the BDS movement” and is glad that Unilever is still committed to marketing in Israel proper.

“While ADL is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, we believe that it is wrong for any company to single out Israel by refusing to sell its products to Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank,” he added, calling on Unilever to convince Ben & Jerry’s to walk back the position.

The Conference of Presidents was more forceful, saying in a statement that Unilever’s response “does not go nearly far enough.”

“Unilever reportedly has the legal ability to override the recommendation of Ben & Jerry’s board to boycott Israel. We again strongly encourage them to do so, as boycotts of Israel are discriminatory and further inflame tensions,” the Conference said, seemingly taking the same position as the Israeli government, which equates boycotts of settlements with boycotts of Israel proper.

The umbrella organization representing 51 American Jewish groups commended authorities in states across the United States who have begun examining whether they can sanction Unilever based on anti-BDS legislation that has been passed across the US over the past decade.

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